Watching Prince Avalanche, it's not difficult to feel like it's Christmas morning, and you got almost the present you wanted. I mean, it's still really great, and you're glad to have it but... it's just not right, and the harder you insist that it's still really good, the harder it becomes to ignore how disappointing it was.

By which I mean, thank all the available gods that David Gordon Green is back to making low-key, nature-dominated dramas about everyday people in the broadly-defined American South. I liked Pineapple Express just fine, but Your Highness was a soul-sucking dead end, and no force in heaven will make me see The Sitter; that the director of the beautiful, gorgeous, elusive George Washington would spend the rest of his life making stoopid comedies was one that depressed me all of out proportion to the size of the artistic crime involved. So all praise to Prince Avalanche for including no rubber monster dicks, gay panic jokes, or the word "shart".

But being profoundly grateful that Prince Avalanche exists isn't exactly identical with finding Prince Avalanche to be a completely unproblematic triumph for Green's brand of nature worship. Honestly, the film demonstrates a little bit of tone-deafness that isn't by any means the worst thing I can imagine. One gets the impression that Green, in adapting the 2011 Icelandic film Either Way in particularly ascetic secrecy, was trying to split the difference between the lyrical artsiness of his early work and the rowdy bro comedy of his later work. But instead of something that excitingly combines two wildly disparate genres in one form, Prince Avalanche too often feels like it has to heavily lurch between tones - "enough of the nature photography, hang tight while we switch over to a scene of these guys talking about sex". It lacks anything resembling flow, and when all is said and done it feels much more like a collection of isolated scenes than a single movie designed to be watched all together.

This is not necessarily a problem. The plot of Prince Avalanche itself reflects a certain degree of things not happening, and when they do, they happen in isolation, and perhaps the film deliberately mimics that. Also, most of the individual scenes work, though sometimes the actors involve make it a much narrower victory than it should be. Namely, the film features a largely unrecognisable Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as Alvin and Lance, two men working on a road repair project in 1988, following a terrible fire in Texas in 1987 (the film was shot in the wake of the devastating wildfires in that state in the autumn of 2011). Lance is Alvin's girlfriend's brother, and the older man has clearly come to regret his decision to do this favor for her; for Lance is not very good even at the supremely unskilled work they're doing (painting yellow stripes on a reconstructed forest road), and vocal about how much he'd like to go back to the city and have sex, instead of camping out in the forest with the frustratingly bland and satisfied Alvin.

The drama involves these two men getting to know each other well enough to get on each other's nerves, and then to understand each other, then to feel betrayed, then to be content just to hang out. That is to say, calling this a "drama" is severely overstating what it is. It's a depiction of male bonding, stretched over time, set in an especially isolated context that makes it something of a laboratory experiment, or a meditation: what happens to two people when you make it impossible for them to discuss anything all besides each other?

The results are inconclusive, owing in part to a little bit of dysfunctional acting (Rudd takes a long time to settle into the rhythms of the character, and Hirsch gets stuck in "horny idiot" mode too easily, throughout the film), and owing a lot to Green's screenplay, which (lacking the time to be refined over the course of a blazingly fast pre-production and production schedule) includes a lot of dead space: dialogue that feels like filler until somebody had a chance to go back and over and make something interesting to listen to. And there again, the film is kind of about two men who have strained conversations that aren't worth listening to, but for this to work, the film would need to be trafficking in something like realism, and Prince Avalanche is miles and miles away from that. It's nearer the opposite of realism, in fact, with its ellipses, its self-consciously abstracted narrative asides, and its absolutely breathtaking, glowing nature photography courtesy of Tim Orr, Green's longtime cinematographer, who unlike his director appears to have been thinking for a long time about what he'd do when given a chance to work in a landscape-driven indie film again, because the film is gorgeous and impressionistic in all the absolutely best ways.

But if the writing has issues, the film turns into something genuinely marvelous when the characters just shut up and let the movie be about men interacting with a natural world that is indifferent to them being there, or with the lingering symbols of destruction that has been surprisingly quickly re-absorbed into woodlands. The film's absolute best moment, for example, finds Alvin (who we'll learn later on has some very inconclusive ideas about relationships) pantomiming domesticity in the foundation of what was formerly a house and is not vaguely house-shaped ash. It's the contemplative moments like this (or the interludes where the men meet two other random figures, a truck driver and a woman exploring the ruins of her home, played by Lance LeGault and non-actor Joyce Payne) where Prince Avalanche turns into something really special and rich, and not so much the lengthy spells where Green and his actors have a rough time turning the go-nowhere hang-out dialogue of Pineapple Express into something vague enough to fit in the quiet nature scenes where the entire film takes place. As an exploration on male relationships, the film is interesting; as a meditation on humanity's attempts to close down on nature, it is almost up to the level of Green of old; as a sit-along with two guys talking about life and stuff, it's got a lot of stiffness to it, and that's most of the movie. But everything around that works so tremendously well that I think it's fair to say the director still has his old skills, he just needs to relearn how to use them a little bit.